Has hybrid working affected the way chronic conditions are treated?

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Need to know:

  • The pandemic has greatly increased employers’ focus on chronic conditions.
  • Listening to chronic condition sufferers is key.
  • Group income protection has an important role to play.

It is unclear whether chronic health conditions as a whole increased directly due to the pandemic-induced shift towards home and hybrid working, but Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) data shows the number of working-age people self-reporting at least one long-term health condition rose from 31% in the first quarter of 2019 to 36% in the first quarter of 2023.

This could result from an ageing population and a drive to get older people back to work, and there could even be under-reportage because people are more likely to continue working with chronic conditions from home than if they have to commute.

David Williams, head of group risk at Towergate Health and Protection, says: “Some homeworkers may struggle on at 50% capacity rather than sign off sick, so it’s very hard to quantify. While this cuts down on absenteeism, it could create a major presenteeism problem.”

But it is beyond doubt that Covid-19 greatly increased the focus that employers place on chronic conditions. Jeanette Cook, principal strategic consultant at Aon, says: “Our surveys show that employers rate employees much more highly as a business priority since lockdown, which created a universal reset in how we look after each other. Because of the sheer numbers involved, employers have recognised they simply have to respect chronic conditions.”

The main chronic conditions affecting employees are cancer, mental health issues and musculoskeletal and neurological problems. Commentators disagree as to whether lockdown has exacerbated or improved mental health, but most feel it has increased musculoskeletal problems, particularly back pain, as a result of homeworkers adopting poor postures and using inappropriate desks and chairs. Long Covid, which last year accounted for 3.5% of Zurich’s income protection claims, has also emerged.

Tackling the conditions

The key starting point for employers is to listen to chronic condition sufferers and to provide a physically and psychologically safe working environment. “If someone has a chronic condition, they are [like] a mini Wikipedia on it, and know what they need,” explains Cook. “So, it’s a mistake to treat them with kid gloves.”

Any employer creating the right environment should proactively be going beyond the basic need to comply with legislation like the Equality Act 2010 and the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act 2023.

Katharine Moxham, spokesperson for industry body Group Risk Development (Grid), says: “Although employers are required under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments, employees don’t actually have to disclose their conditions. So, they need to feel comfortable to discuss them and how the employer can help.”

Group income protection plays a valuable role in treating chronic conditions, just as much for its rehabilitation facilities as for its insurance mechanism. Legal and General’s rehabilitation capability is getting 92% of those with mental health problems and 84% of those with musculoskeletal problems back to work within the deferred period of typically six months. Vanessa Sallows, claims and governance director at Legal and General, says: “Our multi-disciplinary rehab teams can support individuals to return to work quicker than on the beleaguered NHS, which looks at everything in silos. Psychological conditions are often linked with physical ones, so our holistic approach is key.”

Group income protection and other group risk products also offer added-value features that can be particularly valuable to those with chronic conditions, such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs), and virtual GP and physiotherapy services.

Keeping in touch

Employers must also ensure they carry out workstation assessments with homeworkers, which can be done virtually, and be in regular contact with chronic condition sufferers, to ensure they have everything they need, and with healthy homeworkers to check nothing has changed.

Dan Little, director of electrical, data and IT services provider J Brand, says “Hybrid working is something [we] have to constantly keep under review. When lockdown began we got management to make daily calls to homeworkers, and then eventually weekly calls, to check against deterioration in mental health due to isolation and to point them in the direction of the EAP.”

Organisations also need to pay close attention to their culture to safeguard against future chronic conditions developing from excessive demands, pressure and negative behaviours.